A short biography of French anarchist Paul Roussenq, who spent much of his life in prison camps.
Born 1885 - France, died August 1949 - France
The jailbird of Saint Gilles
Paul Roussenq was born in the rural Gard department, part of the southern French region of the Midi, in 1885. His mother had a long and painful delivery. His life was to continue as it had started: in suffering. His parents were day labourers working on the land, among the vines, the wheat fields and the meadows.
Paul soon showed his independence, robustness and maturity. He began to read the anarchist papers Le Libertaire, Le Père Peinardand Les Temps Nouveaux.At the age of 14, he had already read the 19 volumes of the Universal Geography of the anarchist geographer Élisée Reclus.
At the age of 16, he had an argument with his father and ran away. His stubbornness had made him fall out with his father over a minor disagreement, which he regretted all his life, as he never again saw his parents alive. He slept in barns, under trees, living from odd jobs and fruit found on the ground or picked. So, on 6 September 1901, he was sentenced for theft at the court of Aix in Provence, getting a six-month suspended sentence. Again in 1903 he was in court at Chambéry, receiving a three-month sentence for vagrancy which he appealed. At the appeal the prosecutor demanded prison for Paul.
This was too much for him. Rising from his seat he cried out: “What, going on the road, poor and penniless, is now criminal. But it’s precisely the rich who should go on trial, with all their crimes as exploiters!” The court demanded an apology. Paul refused, hurling a lump of hard bread in the prosecutor’s face. He was sentenced to
five years in jail!
He spent five years in Clairvaux prison and came out with his anarchist convictions reinforced. The police, the judiciary and the army appeared to him as resolute adversaries of free people and he developed a ferocious hatred of uniforms. He was immediately conscripted to serve in Africa. He wrote later: “Barracks life is certainly the most brutalising under the skies... soldiers are just machines that obey”.
But the battalions of Africa were worse than the barracks. These military camps were disciplinary institutions reserved for the stubborn, the rebellious and the recalcitrant. The stupidity and cruelty of the officers was celebrated and there had been campaigns of denunciations led against the torture carried out there.
Paul had a violent argument with an officer. He was shut up in a cell. He had had a bellyful of prison, and set his bunk on fire. For this he received 20 years hard labour. He was sent to the dreaded penal colonies at Cayenne in French Guyana, the island prison hell made infamous in the book and film Papillon.
Many anarchists had been sent there over the years, and indeed there had been a massacre of anarchists there in the 1890s, which the authorities had concealed. Here Paul was nicknamed L’Inco (short for the Incorrigible). On top of his sentence, he received a total of 3,379 days in solitary confinement, and achieved the top record for this.
The cells were tiny, with little air and light, with dry bread and water two days out of three. The humidity of the tropical climate was appalling. Many died of syphilis, malaria, dysentery and TB. Half, yes half, of the 48,000 plus deportees died there between 1852 and 1921. His mother was the first to campaign for his release, then the magazine Detectives took up the case, running many articles on the Guyana penal colonies. He came first in a competition’ of those who should be released. The second was also an anarchist, Vial, who had refused to take part in the butchery of the First World War and had been sentenced for desertion and insubmission. Later, in 1893, Albert Londres the campaigning journalist mentioned Roussenq in his book on the prison islands. Finally his case was taken up by the Secours Rouge International (SRI) controlled by the Communist Party, who sent 100 francs a month to his mother “as to all the families of the victims of capitalist oppression”.
By 1929, Roussenq had finished his 20 years hard labour. But an article of the law stipulated that a prisoner condemned to more than eight years must stay in Guyana for the rest of his life! The SRI led the campaign against this foul law. Demonstrations for his release were organised, and Roussenq’s letters began to be published in the French press. Finally, despite another short detention on trumped up charges, Paul returned to Paris in 1932, with an amnesty. He was welcomed at the station by a large crowd and said, “My impressions are those of one of the damned leaving hell”. But in the meantime, both his parents and a sister had died.
Roussenq did a tour of meetings around France denouncing prison and the conditions there. This was organised by the SRI. Many of these meetings were in the Midi, where the anarchists had strong groups and the Communist Party had had a severe decline in members. It appears that the Communists hoped to use Roussenq to recruit among the anarchists.
Visit to Russia
The SRI financed a trip to the Soviet Union, and asked him to write an account of his impressions. Deprived of his family and of work, Paul had had to rely on the support of the Communist Party. But this was a bridge too far, because the version that appeared in the Communist press was heavily censored. He denounced these
manipulations in the anarchist papers.
He commented there on the secret police, the lack of liberty, the scarcity and bad quality of food, the police presence at the factory gates. He finished: “In my opinion, no conscious anarchist should rally to the 3rd International. The Bolsheviks have exterminated the Russian anarchists, let us not forget... and whilst not toning down our efforts in the common struggle against fascism and war, let us not be dupes, and conserve our ideal”.
Roussenq became involved in the activities of ALARM (Alliance Libre des Anarchistes de la Région du Midi) who had four groups in the area, with a large number of members who brought out many leaflets, pamphlets and posters. He participated in many public meetings. ALARM consisted mostly of workers, many of these agricultural workers. He became the director of the anarchist paper Terre Libre, edited at Nîmes by André Prudhommeaux. It analysed the current situation, as well as providing many theoretical texts. He was in the post until the paper was transferred to Paris in 1936. Paul had to make a living as a peddler of sweets in the markets, profiting from his journeys around the area to sell anarchist books and papers.
He left the region in 1935, traveling all over France, getting several fines for vagrancy. His health was shattered by the time he had spent in Guyana. Then the war came, and he was imprisoned by the Vichy regime in its internment camps. This further aggravated his health. Whilst in internment, he wrote his memoirs which were finally published in 1957.
After the war he assisted in a strike of vineyard workers at Aimargues in 1948, helping the influential group of anarchists there. Twenty-five years of prison, constant hounding and persecution wherever he went in France, the impossibility of getting work because of his record, and the illnesses he had contracted in Guyana, which now caused him extreme pain, led him to take his life by drowning himself in the Adour river. He wrote to Élisée Perrier of the anarchist paper Le Libertaireon 3 August 1949; “My dear Elisée, I am at the end. At Bayonne there is a great and beautiful river, and this evening, I will go in search of the great remedy for all suffering: Death”.
From Organise! 53 by the Anarchist Federation